The Real Bun Papa

The Real Bun Papa

Featuring Bread & Water Company Story by Jorge Martinez Cover photo by Jonathan Thorpe

Bun Papa is a gem shining bright in the unassuming, nondescript Belle View Shopping Center in Alexandria. A pop-up concept developed by the culinary team at Bread & Water Company bakery, Bun Papa makes mouth-watering burgers and sandwiches and has quickly become a popular spot in the DMV. Yet, it is not only about the delicious burgers and sandwiches. The talented chefs and bakers at Bread & Water Company also create jaw-dropping tower cakes, pastries, desserts and breads. Their efforts have been recognized by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. The organization chose and honored Bread & Water Company in the Baking & Pastry: Sweet Relief Category. Bun Papa’s start has been so successful that it was a finalist for a RAMMY award for “Hottest New Sandwich Shop” in the DMV after only seven months in business.

The foundation of a perfectly baked brioche bun and tiers of delicious fillings are the blueprint for many imaginative and artistic handheld meals, which Bun Papa has mastered. The story of how this passionate culinary group got started and have persevered in the face of industry challenges is nothing short of inspiring.

Markos Panas, raised in the DMV, started Bread & Water Company in 2010, first selling his products at farmers markets throughout the area. Baking was always close and dear to Markos’s heart. His father, John, owned several business and restaurants in our area, and supplied bread and other products to numerous restaurants and hotel establishments.

Markos is instantly likable. His personality, energy and passion are infectious – and it is reflected in his team and food. His drive to develop new food concepts that keep attracting locals is to be admired. For example, his nothing-can-stop-me attitude fueled him to travel to France to procure an oven from a 200+ year-old family-owned business. He shipped that oven back to the United States and brought the company's lead engineer with him. Together, he and the engineer assembled the oven in its new home. That oven quickly became the heart and soul of the kitchen. Markos then ordered and self-installed a hydraulic lift – a solution for getting products from the basement to the ground floor. To save much-needed funds, he was determined to dig the hole and install the lift himself. This labor of love took three months and many busted jackhammers during a fairly cold winter season. In hindsight, he says, it would have been better to pay a professional to do it. But the hard work has paid off handsomely with customers flocking to Bread & Water Company and Bun Papa.

Markos’s first hire at Bread & Water Company was Noelie Rickey, a Bellevue, Washington native who graduated top of her class in pastry and with honors from L’Academie de Cuisine. She recalls the time when they met to discuss the job opportunity. Walking in and seeing a construction zone with no end in sight, it was not easy for her to imagine a functioning business. Markos’s seemingly lofty promise to be ready a month later proved to be true and, alas, a store was born.

Working with a bootstrap budget, Markos’s dad would frequent farmers markets and trade day-old bread with farmers for fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins and other items like flowers. He would bring these back, drop them on the back table and ask the staff to work their magic and fashion something delicious. The whole menu, or lack thereof, was conceptualized daily from whatever they had on hand – truly farm to table. Bun Papa was an offshoot of this idea.

The trio of partners also includes Philadelphia-born and DMV area-raised Doug Abedje. Together, the three began brainstorming on how to generate extra revenue, coming up with thirty concepts. One of these was a hot chicken sandwich, waffle fries, lemonade and banana pudding pop-up. The team implemented this first concept over three days in one week. It was so successful that they decided to do it again the following week and when folks kept coming, it was clear to them they had to extend the pop-up. Meanwhile, they were making brioche buns for their Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, constantly tweaking the recipe to produce the perfect bun. Markos asked his head baker to change up the recipe and provide them with samples the next day. Upon arriving the next morning, Markos was speechless. He saw several bakers' racks full of brioche buns that looked like perfection. They were the best buns he’d seen in his life. Feeling emotional and a bit melancholic thinking of all the iterations that led to that moment, he came out cradling one of the brioche buns and was about to show it to the staff when Noelie casually walked in and said, “Hey, aren’t you a proud bun papa.” Thus, the name stuck and a concept was created.

Leading the charge in the kitchen line is Chef Patrick Tanyag. Known as @dahangrychef on Instagram, Chef Patrick is one of the most dynamic and interesting chefs you will ever meet. Hailing from the DC area, he serves as corporate executive chef and culinary consultant for Bun Papa, Bread & Water Company and their new diner concept. He leads a team responsible for designing menus that include their delicious Roadhouse Burger, VIP Alexandria Magazine’s 2021 winner for Most Recommended Burger in the annual VIB (Very Important Burger) Awards. A graduate of the Art Institute of Washington, Chef Patrick spent a significant part of his childhood watching chefs Julia Child, Martin Yan, Thomas Keller (of the Michelin-starred the French Laundry), Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne. Another VIB Award winner was one of his many creations, the Fried Cauliflower Burger. This hearty piece of cauliflower is marinated in coconut milk and turmeric, dredged in Bun Papa’s fried chicken spice and dredge mix and deep fried to crispy, golden deliciousness. It is served on their homemade brioche bun with crispy onion straws and a choice of sauce (we recommend Noelie’s Ranch).

In October 2019, a devastating fire severely damaged part of the Belle View Shopping Center where they are located, damaging 10 businesses and forcing several to permanently close. The fire department would not authorize the business to reopen until they went through several processes. Bread & Water Company was shut down for three weeks. It was a tough situation to be closed for that long, but Markos had employees to take care of and a community to serve. A significant amount of food inventory had to be thrown out. Markos and his partners soon realized how expensive it would be to reopen, but they did it.

Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to close. Markos said they were faced with losing about 50% of their business overnight when the farmers markets closed and about another 20% of their revenue when the wholesale business dried up. Beginning with a decision to close for 24 hours to regroup, the partners were also confronted with the reality of an Alexandria community depending on them. Many of their regulars were first responders and healthcare professionals working on the front lines.

Markos and his team agreed to stay open. They retrofitted the entire floor to allow for more seamless operations, implemented social-distancing protocols during deliveries and created a curbside pick-up window. They also kept the entire staff employed throughout the year. More importantly, they began delivering real, legitimate food to hungry customers craving something special during the long days of at-home quarantine. The decision not to close built significant goodwill among staff, customers and vendors. The local community was happy to have a place where they could frequent and feel a sense of normalcy.

Markos, Noelie and Doug have built a team with a unique set of traits, skills and talents that make them dynamic. The three are now partners in all ventures including Bread & Water Company’s two locations (in Alexandria and Arlington), Bun Papa, a soon-to-open spot at Capital One Arena and a diner concept in the Bradlee Shopping Center scheduled to open early next year. They are also considering offers from real estate developers and investors for other ventures which will offer customers in the area many more delicious options to consider.

Bread & Water Company and Bun Papa are located at 1512 Belle View Boulevard in Alexandria, Virginia. They can be found on Instagram at @breadandwatercompany and @therealbunpapa.

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